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A Field Trip to ‘Fiddler’: A New Tradition Is Born

THE WONDERS OF AMERICA

These days, they’re packin’ them in at New York’s Minskoff Theater, where audiences throng to see the latest revival of that evergreen musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” I had the good fortune to be among them recently when I took my class of Princeton University undergraduates to see the play. For several months now, our seminar, “Culture Mavens: American Jews and the Performing Arts,” has been exploring the relationship between American Jews and popular culture. Since “Fiddler” neatly encapsulated many of the issues we had so avidly discussed, a visit to Broadway was an opportunity not to be missed, even if the critics believed otherwise.

Much has been made of the perceived limitations of the current production. Critics from coast to coast had a field day pointing up its inadequacies, from the sparseness of the sets to the uninflected accents of the actors. Some have faulted this “Fiddler” for lacking a Jewish soul; others for being too “antiseptic” and “subdued.”

But then, critics have always had a field day with “Fiddler.” When the show first opened on Broadway, in 1964, it was not universally embraced. Although the Daily News pronounced it “darling” (darling?) as well as “touching, beautiful, warm, funny and inspiring,” Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune had his doubts. “‘Fiddler on the Roof’ might have been an altogether charming musical,” he wrote, “if only the people of Anatevka did not pause every now and again to give their regards to Broadway.”

The most scathing critique by far came from the pen of Irving Howe. Taking aim at virtually everything, he hotly denounced “Fiddler” for playing fast and free with Sholom Aleichem, for transforming the Almighty into “Zero Mostel’s straight man” and for rendering the humble and sweet religious ritual of lighting the Sabbath candles as a theatrical spectacle akin to “Shabbos at Radio City Music Hall.” This show, he railed, was guilty of simplifying the dark complexities of shtetl life to the point where Anatevka had become “the cutest shtetl we never had.” And that wasn’t all. By Howe’s lights, absolutely nothing about “Fiddler” was worth singing about, not even “Tradition” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” two songs well on their way to becoming American Jewish anthems.

Instead, the play represented the depths to which American Jews, creatures of cultural illiteracy and nostalgia, had sunk. “If a future historian of the Yiddish epoch in American Jewish life will want to know how it came to an end,” he soberly concluded, “we can now tell him.”

In what clearly has become a modern-day tradition all its own, my students — aspiring critics, all — also weighed in with great relish on what they took to be the current “Fiddler”’s flaws. From where they sat (in the furthermost reaches of the balcony), the set seemed more to resemble something out of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” than a representation of Anatevka. Authenticity was another issue that raised some hackles. To their ears, the actors sounded far too un-Jewish and lacked the requisite pathos. Pointing to a billboard that read, “Now for everyone,” they also wondered whether a conscious attempt had been made to universalize the show’s Jewish characters and themes at the expense of the culturally specific. What’s more, quite a few students felt that, in its celebration of love and of the individual, “Fiddler on the Roof” was ultimately more about America than about Eastern Europe. They had a point.

Still, when all was said and done, everyone managed to have a good time, both laughing aloud and tearing up at just the right moments. And when they left the theater to board the bus that would return them to suburban Princeton, it was hard to contain their high spirits and collective eagerness to talk — and talk some more — about what they had seen on stage.

If my students are any indication of the future — and I have every reason to think they are — Howe had no cause to be quite so gloomy about American Jewry and its embrace of “Fiddler” as its ur-text. In the end, the show may not do justice to Sholom Aleichem. But its capacity to stir the emotions, generate serious discussion and create, if only for three hours, an affective community bound by shared gestures, songs, movement and a sense of history suggests that it might well be the next best thing. Just ask the next generation.

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